Elephants are one of the top draws for zoos, which are the only places most of us get a chance to see the behemoths. But a new and controversial study in tomorrow's issue of Science suggests that captivity is so bad for female elephants' health and overall well-being that their life spans are less than half of those of protected populations in Africa and Asia. The data also indicate that captive-born Asian elephant calves are particularly likely to die young. The team has called for an end to zoos' acquisition of wild elephants and for limits on transfers of animals among zoos.
Already concerned about their elephants, many zoos in the United States and Europe are expanding or building new enclosures, or even deciding against exhibiting the great beasts altogether. Studies in the wild have documented the importance of roaming and family ties for these animals, which zoos with limited space often cannot provide. A sign that the animals aren't thriving is that “zoos are not able to maintain their elephant populations without importing new, wild-caught animals,” says Ros Clubb, a wildlife biologist at England's Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in London. Clubb and co-author, Georgia Mason, a behavioral biologist at the University of Guelph in Canada, published a pilot, non-peer-reviewed study on this issue 6 years ago. It was fiercely and “rightly” criticized, they say, for its small data set and poor statistics–problems they say they have corrected with the new report.